Most of us, myself included, are used to being able to pick up a dozen flaky crescent rolls at our local grocery store. And they’re usually pretty good as pastries go. After all, how many of us have ever even tasted a home-made, fresh out of the oven croissant with no preservatives? I hadn’t. Not until today.
Pastry making is the one of the most interesting and entertaining aspects of cooking, and the results, when done properly, are one of the most delicious as well. I had read that being able to produce a decent pastry was the ultimate test for a baker, so I was eager to see where I stood in this respect.
Pastry dough was far more complicated and time consuming than anything else I had tried to date. It’s also remarkably sensitive to temperature and mixing. But to use a cooking metaphor, that was sauce for the goose.
I choose the croissant recipe from Baking Illustrated, as they had yet to let me down. I had read through a few other variations in my other books, and theirs just seemed the most thought-out.
My first challenge came with the butter square. I made the mistake of using butter that had recently been in the freezer. There is a very great difference between “cold” butter and “nearly frozen” butter. The technique is to use your pastry scraper to scrape/work an amount of flour into the butter until you have an even mix. But the trick here is that you can’t let your butter become so soft that it starts to really stick to the surface you’re working on. This is a fine line, which was made all the more difficult to obtain because I was working with butter that was incredibly difficult to scrape. I did finally get the flour integrated, but my arms were pumped and nearly spent getting it there. I also had to work with smaller pieces to go anywhere, which meant that some of my butter was softening more than the rest over time. By the end, my butter square was nearly too soft to lift from my table.
In retrospect, I should have started with butter from the fridge and not the freezer, and then used the technique of pounding the flour into the butter with my rolling pin (at least at first) in order to incorporate it. I would also have worked much faster, not worrying so much about the shaping on the table. It was much more important to simply get the flour in there and then get the slab of butter to the approximate thickness and size desired. Once it’s wrapped in plastic wrap you can worry about making it “square”.
In Baking Illustrated, they recommend 4 turns for croissants. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s the process of “laminating” the butter and dough together in folded layers. It’s this layering that creates the “flaky” part of the pastry. Some books I’ve read called for as many as six turns. I followed my recipe and did two sets of two, which saved a ton of time since you really need to refrigerate the dough for an hour or so between turns.
Once I was ready to roll out my final pastry dough, I found another problem. The recipe calls for a 20 inch square of dough, and that initial square really does need to be fairly square or the final triangles you get at the edges will be seriously lacking. This is tough, especially when you need to work fast so that your dough doesn’t warm up too much and start sticking to your work surface, flour or no. Dough tends to want to form a circle when rolled thin, and it’s a real test of technique to get it square in time. I did alright, but the dough was starting to get pretty tough to work by the end. Once again, speed and confidence is essential.
The shaping of the croissants themselves was easier than I thought it would be, probably due to the hint the book provided of making a once inch slit at the bottom edge of each triangle which is then folded out as you roll. Keep the rolls tight, even stretching the dough a bit will help to make nice solid crescents.
Baking was pretty straightforward, although I’m not sure what “upper- and lower-middle positions” (sic) means in terms of rack placement in the oven. Is that “upper middle” and “lower middle”, or “upper” and “lower middle”. I don’t know about you, but my oven isn’t anywhere that flexible. My top rack would be way too close to the elements for puffy croissants, and both trays on the middle racks would be fine for flatbread, but little else. I settled on lower and middle since it was pretty much the only configuration that left enough space between the racks for the pastries to actually puff. I did rotate the trays as the recipe called for, however.
The end result was very nice visually, and extremely delicious. Just the right amount of flake, with a nice soft inside. I noticed that the outsides might have been cooking just a tad too fast, so my oven might have been running a little hot. I would probably lower the temperature by twenty-five degrees and increase the time just a bit to even things a little.
While I don’t think I would make these for just a dozen (they simply take too much time I don’t have), they were a fantastic treat, and far better than the store-bought kind, especially right from the oven. It’s just too easy, and cheap, to pick up a few from the store for general use unless you have a major dinner planned. The one really great thing about pastry dough though is that it freezes.